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Sign up for electronic benefits by March 1

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DALLAS (1/29/13)--The clock is ticking for receiving Social Security or other federal benefits by paper check. If you signed up for federal benefits before May 1, 2011, and didn't pick electronic delivery, you have until March 1 to make the switch (The Dallas Morning News Jan. 20).

To save money and make the receipt of benefits safer, the Treasury Department is saying goodbye to paper. Now you can join the 93% of Americans who receive their payments electronically.  Here are some tips:

  • If you have a bank or credit union account, learn about and sign up for direct deposit online at GoDirect.org, or call the U.S. Treasury Electronic Payment Solution Center at 800-333-1795. Be prepared to supply information about the account type (checking or savings), the account number, and your financial institution's routing number.
  • If you don't have a bank or credit union account, sign up for the government's Direct Express card by calling the U.S. Treasury Electronic Payment Solution Center at 800-333-1795.
  • If you prefer to use a non-government (privately issued) prepaid debit card, ask the issuer if it's eligible for direct deposit.
  • If you don't have an account at a financial institution and don't have a prepaid debit card, for a small fee you may open an Electronic Transfer Account (ETA). This is a federally insured account that lets you enjoy the safety, security, and convenience of automatic payments. To learn more about this program, visit ETA-find.gov, call 888-382-3311, or visit a financial institution near you that offers ETAs.
  • If you're age 92 or older, unless you have a representative payee you are automatically exempt from the electronic transfer requirement. Exemptions also may be issued to people who apply for and receive waivers due to mental or geographical impairment.
  • If you or someone you know might have trouble with the transfer to electronic payments, consider applying for a waiver. Since the waiver application requires notarization and might be challenging, keep in mind that there's no penalty for not complying with the switch to electronic payments.
You don't have to pay a fee to sign up for or to receive benefits electronically, and the government won't penalize you for missing the deadline. That's because the government doesn't have the authority to change your payment method without your permission. If you fail to sign up, you'll still receive paper checks. Just expect a lot of public notices and mail from the U.S. government urging you to go electronic.

Health care discounts, online budgeting on H&FF Radio

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WASHINGTON (1/28/13)--Last Sunday's H&FF Radio covered easy online budgeting and saving, negotiating health care discounts, and companies that annoy consumers yet offer good stock values.

The show, which you also can hear later via the Internet, featured Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing these topics with special guests:

  • "Mvelopes and American Debt." Steven B. Smith, chairman and president/CEO, Finicity, Draper, Utah, shared details about his free online budgeting system and ways to save in 2013.
  • "Six Ways to Negotiate Doctor Bills." Caroline Mayer, blogger, NextAvenue, Washington, D.C., said it's often possible to get health care discounts, if you ask.
  • "Irritating Companies." Kathy Kristof, contributing editor, Kiplinger Personal Finance, Washington, D.C., gave tips about companies that infuriate customers but are great firms for investors.
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at the Credit Union National Association (CUNA). The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, maker of award-winning cheddar; and the Defense Credit Union Council and member credit unions, serving those who serve the country worldwide.

Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. ET on the Radio America Network. The show also is carried on American Forces Radio Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is brought to you by America's credit unions and their 90 million members, and is presented by CO-OP Network.

CUNA and Radio America are podcasting Home & Family Finance through iTunes, Podcast Alley, Odeo, and other popular podcast library sites, as well as on Radio America and CUNA's websites.

For related information, read "Learn to Evaluate Financial Information" and "Negotiate Your Way to a Better Price" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

EITC can help taxpayers, if they're aware

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (1/22/13)--Jan. 25 might be a day that few folks have marked on their calendars, but it's a date worth noting. Friday is National Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) Day--and the credit can mean money in your pocket (newsuwmidsouth.org Jan. 11).

State and local government agencies, employers, elected officials, and charitable and social organizations will join to raise awareness about the EITC on this day.

The EITC is a federal tax credit that can help low- to moderate-income working individuals and families, according to the Internal Revenue Service. The credit can result in larger tax returns. Some important details about claiming the credit are below: To qualify for the credit, you must:

  • File a tax return with the IRS. This is true even if you don't owe any taxes or are not required to file. Many individuals miss out on the credit simply because they don't file.
  • Have earned income. To qualify, you must have earned income from employment or another source.
  • Have a valid Social Security number.
  • Cannot have a filing status of married filing separately.
You'll need to meet additional rules to qualify for the credit. Search for EITC at the irs.gov website.

Tax specialists at your credit union can offer additional guidance about the EITC. Many credit unions collaborate with Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) programs to help consumers who can't afford to pay for professional tax preparation services. VITA programs provide free tax assistance for low-to moderate-income individuals with an adjusted gross annual income of $50,000 or less.

For more information about filing taxes, watch the video "Getting Tax Records Organized" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Military and student financial matters, mobile banking on H&FF Radio

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WASHINGTON (1/22/13)--On this past Sunday's H&FF Radio, guests talk about financial issues and the military, mobile banking and security, and handling previously unmanageable student debt.

The show, which you also can hear later via the Internet, featured Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing these topics with special guests:

  • "Military Matters." Roland "Arty" Arteaga, president/CEO, Defense Credit Union Council, Washington, D.C., discussed money issues affecting soldiers and their financial quality of life.
  • "Mobile Money." James T. Shreve, attorney, BuckleySandler LLP, Washington, D.C., talked about mobile banking and payments and keeping your data and identity safe.
  • "Get Control of Student Loan Debt." Bruce Mesnekoff, general manager, The Student Loan Help Center, Tampa, Fla., gave advice about handling delinquent student loans.
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at the Credit Union National Association. The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, maker of award-winning cheddar; and the Defense Credit Union Council and member credit unions, serving those who serve the country worldwide.

Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. ET on the Radio America Network. The show also is carried on American Forces Radio Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is brought to you by America's credit unions and their 90 million members, and is presented by CO-OP Network.

CUNA and Radio America are podcasting Home & Family Finance through iTunes, Podcast Alley, Odeo and other popular podcast library sites, as well as on Radio America and CUNA's websites.

For related information, read "New Rules for College Loans: Matching a Career to Debt Repayment" and "Database Will Track Financial Scams Targeting Military" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Ten steps to fiscal fitness in 2013

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WASHINGTON (1/15/13)--As the new year gains momentum, many consumers enact resolutions involving personal finances--potentially complicated by anticipated tax-law and other regulatory changes.  Whatever your goals, this uncertainty behooves you to be as fiscally savvy as possible (U.S. News & World Report Dec. 20).

Here are 10 tips to help you keep your financial resolutions:

  1. Shop for bargains all year and don't be afraid to negotiate for discounts.  Many retailers offered price-matching last year, and that may continue. Think before you buy. Do you need it? Could you borrow it?
  1. Make money decisions with your partner. Agree on spending priorities and you can invest in what you both value.
  1. Pay down debt. Sizable debt can seem insurmountable; if you pay a small amount of money regularly to the highest-rate bills, you'll slowly see your debt shrink.
  1. Ensure you're saving enough for retirement. Use one of the many online calculators to estimate how much you'll need and determine if you should bump up your 401(k) or other retirement account contributions. Examine how your money is invested and adjust the mix if needed.
  1. Find a better credit card. If yours has high rates or fees, shop for a better deal: Credit unions typically offer better terms. If you have a card with rewards points, make sure you use them.
  1. Find a better financial institution. If yours provides shoddy service at high prices, switch. Nonprofit, member-owned credit unions exist to improve your financial life, so consider joining one if you're not already a member.
  1. Earn more. Ask for a raise or, if your income has plateaued at your job, think about taking on a second job or about becoming an entrepreneur and starting a new business. Talk to your financial adviser first so you have a sound business model.
  1. Stay home. Cooking meals, playing games, watching movies--Hulu Plus, Apple TV and the like are more affordable than theaters--are inexpensive fun.  Making home improvements that increase efficiency can save money while making your abode more comfortable. Be sure your homeowners insurance covers all eventualities as well.
  1. Talk about money with your kids. You play a significant role in how your children handle money and make financial decisions, so share your wisdom with them. Involve them in family decision-making and talk about saving, spending, giving and borrowing. Show them online money sites like the Credit Union National Association's Googolplex, which include fun articles, games and activities to help teach kids about money management.
  1. Use less gas. Of course you'll frequent the lowest priced gas station around, but also lighten your vehicle by removing heavy items from the trunk. Inflating your tires to the proper levels and replacing clogged air filters will improve mileage per gallon, and carpooling lets you share costs. Take public transportation, bike, or walk when you can.
These are just a few money-wise tips for this year; if you examine your goals and daily activities, you'll likely find many more. Save your extra cash in your credit union account for unforeseen expenses and you're ready to handle any financial uncertainty 2013 brings.

For more information, read "Credit counselors say resolutions not right for everyone" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

H&FF Radio reviews estate planning, loans to adult children

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WASHINGTON (1/14/13)--Sunday's H&FF Radio suggested a fresh start for the new year, and reviewed asset protection management and whether you should lend money to your kids.

The show, which you also can hear later via the Internet, featured Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing these topics with special guests:

  • "Happy, Healthy New Year." Marianne McGinnis, editor, Prevention Magazine, San Diego, exhorted listeners to avoid making resolutions they can't keep. Instead, she suggested viewing the new year as a fresh start and striving for a lifestyle of healthy eating habits and better financial choices.
  • "Active Asset Protection Planning." Jeffrey Matsen, author of "The Ladder of Success, An Asset Protection Planning Primer" and an attorney at Bohn, Matsen, Kegel & Aguilera LLP, Costa Mesa, Calif., discussed the importance of estate planning and asset protection management.
  • "Before You Give Your Kid a Loan." Frank Jaffee, a certified financial planner at Access Wealth Planning, Roseland, N.J., revealed the three questions baby boomers should ask their young-adult children before granting them loans.
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at the Credit Union National Association (CUNA). The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, maker of award-winning cheddar; and the Defense Credit Union Council and member credit unions, serving those who serve the country worldwide.

Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. ET on the Radio America Network. The show also is carried on American Forces Radio Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is brought to you by America's credit unions and their 90 million members, and is presented by CO-OP Network.

CUNA and Radio America are podcasting Home & Family Finance through iTunes, Podcast Alley, Odeo, and other popular podcast library sites, as well as on Radio America and CUNA's websites.

For related information, read "Four Key Steps to 'No Regrets' Retirement" and "Credit Counselors Say Resolutions Not Right for Everyone" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Better than a resolution: Set financial goals

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NEW YORK (1/8/13)--Do you want to whip your finances into shape in 2013? Skip the vague, overwhelming New Year's resolution and set realistic short-term goals instead.

The top seven financial resolutions include starting an emergency fund, ditching expensive bank fees, saving for retirement, paying off debt, developing a budget, fixing credit, and talking with family about money (ABCNews.com Jan. 1). However, University of Scranton research suggests that only 8% of consumers actually achieve their New Year's resolutions (Forbes Jan. 1). 

Resolutions are easily abandoned--one misstep and your resolve is shot. But setting simple, specific annual goals, and keeping them front and center throughout the year, may be the ticket to success.

These actions can help you stay on track:

  • Avoid vague. Saving for an emergency fund is admirable, but put some numbers behind it. How much do you need? By when? How will you find the money? Set up an automatic transfer to savings from each paycheck, stick to it and raid it only for legitimate emergencies.
  • Think simple. Keep your list short. Instead of setting one overwhelming goal that results in frustration, set small attainable goals throughout 2013. You're more likely to change your lifestyle--and improve your finances--if you take one step at a time.
  • Post it, share it, chart it. Some people share their goals as an incentive to reach them. This builds accountability, and you can use social media as a motivator. Post your goals online--or on the refrigerator--and publicly cross off your accomplishments. If you're trying to convert from shopaholic to spendthrift, enlist the support of friends via blogs or Facebook.
  • Handle the financial chores. This is about protecting what you have. For example, take steps to keep your computer safe from cyber security threats. Update your beneficiaries and review your insurance coverage. Consider consolidating retirement accounts, particularly from old jobs, and moving them into self-directed accounts. Pay attention to your credit score and list the steps you'll take to improve it (MarketWatch.com Dec. 28).
Bottom line: Don't attempt an extreme makeover in a short time. Set small, attainable goals throughout the year. Come December, instead of failed resolutions you'll see tangible results.

For more information, read "Credit counselors say resolutions not right for everyone" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

H&FF Radio covers smart upkeep strategies for consumers

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WASHINGTON (1/4/13)--Guests on this past Sunday's Home & Family Finance Radio program discussed tactics for dressing for less, tips for protecting your housing investment, and safe check writing.

The show, which you also can hear later via the Internet, is moderated each week by Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster. Features on this week's show inlcude:

  • "Shop in Your Closet." Carolyn Schneider, Bedminster, N.J., author of "The Ultimate Consignment & Thrift Store Guide," said finding clothing in your closet is like finding extra money in your wallet.
  •  "Write Checks Right." Susan Tiffany, certified credit union financial counselor and director of consumer periodicals, Credit Union National Association (CUNA), Madison, Wis., explained that, with all of the high tech ways to spend money, simply knowing how to write a check can be important in protecting your cash. 
  • "Keep Up With Home Repairs." Sal Alfano, editor, Remodeling Magazine, Washington, D.C., said it's a good time to do appropriate yet inexpensive work on homes and apartments, and suggests some smart ways to fix up while saving up.
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at CUNA. The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, maker of award-winning cheddar; and the Defense Credit Union Council and member credit unions, serving those who serve the country worldwide.

Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Radio America Network. The show also is carried on American Forces Radio Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is brought to you by America's credit unions and their 90 million members, and is presented by CO-OP Network.

CUNA and Radio America are podcasting Home & Family Finance through iTunes, Podcast Alley, Odeo, and other popular podcast library sites, as well as on Radio America and CUNA's websites.

For related information, read "Write Checks Right, or Pay a Price" and "Home Improvement Projects: It's Not About Being 'Handy'" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Claim saver's tax credit for 2012

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WASHINGTON (1/2/13)--If you're a low- or moderate-income worker saving for retirement in a 401(k), an individual retirement account (IRA) , or similar workplace retirement program, you could be eligible to claim a special tax credit of as much as $1,000 for individuals and $2,000 for married couples  (U.S. News & World Report Dec. 20).

You can claim this credit in addition to any other tax savings you get for your retirement account contributions.

Here are the rules to claim this credit on your 2012 tax return:

  • You must be age 18 or older.
  • Your adjusted gross income must be within the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidelines: up to $28,750 for singles, $43,125 for heads of households, and $57,500 for couples.
  • You can't count rollovers to your retirement account towards the credit.
  • You're eligibility might be reduced if you recently took a distribution from your retirement account.
Note that you can't take the 2012 credit if you were enrolled as a full-time student during the calendar year or if someone else will claim you a dependent.

The saver's credit is highest for retirement savers with the lowest incomes. The credit ranges between 10% and 50% of retirement contributions, with the highest percentage going to savers with the lowest incomes.

If you were unaware of this credit, first introduced as a temporary provision in 2002 and made permanent in 2006, you're not alone: Only one of four workers has heard about it.

You have until April 15 to make qualifying contributions to a new or existing IRA and get the saver's credit on your 2012 tax return. Follow the instructions on IRS form 8880 to figure the saver's credit correctly and claim it.